When you decided to apply to college, you likely had the end result in mind. Maybe you wanted a better career outlook, or to be the first in your family to graduate.

What about making the same kind of goals for your money in college? If you’ve ever thought, “I want to spend less money on takeout” or “I want to save up for a car,” you’ve made a financial goal.

However, those goals aren’t detailed. Goals like “spend less” are vague. What would it look like to “spend less” on your college budget?

By planning your goals, you’ll have a path to follow and can celebrate milestones along the way. That’s where SMART goals can help you out.

Sure, your goals should be smart, but they should also be SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-based

Let’s go into a bit more detail on each of these, and we’ll see how we can apply them to your college financial goals.


How do you know if your goal is specific? If you can describe the goal in one concise sentence, it’s specific enough. Goals like “save more” are not specific. Goals like “save $500 into an emergency fund” are. When coming up with specific financial goals, try to answer the “who, what, when, where, and how” questions.


Having measurable goals allows you to see how much you’ve accomplished, which can inspire you to keep going!

Most college financial goals are measurable when they’re specific enough. A goal of saving $400 for your textbooks next semester gives you a final number to reach. When you’ve saved up $40, you know you’re 10% of the way there.


Let’s say you want to save a lot of money to pay for school, so you set a goal to save $10,000 in three months. You work part-time while in school and earn $500 a month. If you saved every dollar of your paycheck for three months, you’d still be $8,500 short of your goal. Even if you picked up a side hustle, that’s a lot of money to come up with in that amount of time, especially as a college student.

Instead, focus on saving an achievable amount of money. Using the example above, start out with a goal of saving just $500. That’s enough to get you on track to building a healthy savings.


Now, you may be asking, “What’s the difference between achievable and realistic, really?” The answer is all about relevance.

Let’s say your goal is to write 100 letters to Santa Claus by Christmas Day. Is that specific? Sure. Is it measurable? You bet. What about achievable? Probably, depending on when you start and how fast you can write. But is it realistic? Even for the most Christmas-obsessed, writing that many letters to Santa isn’t really relevant… or necessary. (Just one should do the trick.)

Pick financial goals that are relevant to you as a modern college student with bills to pay, family to look out for, and other important responsibilities. It’s all about relevance to your situation.


Ever had an assignment that you pushed off to the last minute? That feeling of pressure to meet a deadline can light a fire under you to reach your goal.

When it comes to making your goal time-based, you want to find the sweet spot between too much time and not enough. For example, giving yourself 10 years to complete college with a 4.0 GPA may be time-based, but the timeframe is too long. Keep the pressure on, but also remember to keep the goal achievable and realistic.

Examples of SMART Financial Goals for College Students

Check out a few examples of SMART goals for college students, broken down step-by-step!

Goal 1: Save $5,000 over four years to pay student debt

Paying down student loan debt is going to be a big priority after graduation. Here’s one way to save for it by putting the money in a savings account that pays you interest on top of what you’ve saved.

Specific: In a sentence, the goal is “I want to save $5,000 in my savings account over four years to put toward paying down my student debt.”

Measurable: With your end goal of $5,000, you can track your savings down to the penny along the way.

Achievable: $5,000 may seem like a lot of money at first glance, but when you break it down, it’s seems much more doable. The key is to think of your goal in smaller chunks, like weeks. There are 52 weeks in a year, and you have four years, so…

52 weeks per year X 4 years = 208 weeks ➤ $5,000 ÷ 208 weeks = Save $24.04 per week

If you save $25 per week, you’ll save $5,200, reaching your goal and then some. On top of that, saving your money in a savings account means you’ll earn a small amount of interest. The interest you earn may not be much, but when it comes to paying down student loans, anything helps!

Realistic: Having money saved up allows you to make a lump sum payment on your student loans. That means you’ll pay less interest over time, and possibly pay off your student loans early.

Time-based: With your college graduation as a natural finish line, your goal is already on a four-year timeframe. Go you!

Goal 2: Build an emergency fund

Did you know that three out of five college students wouldn’t be able to pay $500 in an emergency? If you want to avoid being part of that statistic, use this SMART goal to build your emergency fund.

Specific: “In nine months, I want to have $500 saved in case of emergencies.”

Measurable: Again, you have a specific dollar amount to count up to, so you’re good here. You’ve got a way to track your progress along the way to make sure you’re on track to reaching your goal.

Achievable: Like the previous goal, let’s break things down. Let’s use 39 weeks, which is roughly nine months…

$500 ÷ 39 weeks = Save $12.82 per week

Is saving $12.82 achievable on your college budget?

Realistic: Truth is, everyone needs an emergency fund. Being able to cover an unexpected expense out of pocket can make all the difference between affording another semester of tuition or stopping out and delaying your progress.

Time-based: For this goal, we’ve got a timeframe of nine months. If that’s comfortable to you, great. If it seems like too much time, see if you can budget $20 a week instead. That way, you reach your goal of $500 in a little less than six months.

What money goals will you pursue in college?

Using what you’ve learned about SMART goals, you can achieve any financial goal you set your mind to in college. Just take it one step, one dollar, one day, and one week at a time.

Photo of Financial Coach Melanie.About Melanie

I am a Financial Coach for college students and parents. I am an Accredited Financial Counselor (AFC®) and received my BBA in Management from Texas State University. I help students understand their financial aid and help them develop a plan to achieve their educational and financial goals. I was a first-generation college student, so I have a personal understanding of some of the struggles students face.

Working in the financial aid industry for 13 years has given me the opportunity to work with students at different points in their life from starting college to graduating and finding a job — all the way through helping them repay their student loans and save for the future.

This service is not intended to constitute any tax, investment or legal advice. If you need investment, legal, tax advice, and/or credit counseling, please consult with a professional within those areas.

Links to third-party financial resources are provided as a convenience for informational purposes only. Trellis Company does not endorse or approve any of the products, services or opinions of the entities or individuals associated with these links.  Trellis Company bears no responsibility for the accuracy, legality or content of any external site associated with the links provided or any subsequent links.

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